There was a point, Darth Vader was reasonably sure, when he could say no.
It should have come easy to him, as a Sith master. Indeed, it had come easily to Palpatine in regards to his apprentice’s ideas; Palpatine had made it abundantly clear that his ideas weren't necessarily welcome, nor appreciated. Such was the way of the Sith: the words, the master’s; the actions, the apprentice's. Indeed, he’d held little sway over Palpatine during his time as an apprentice— he had failed to launch the reforms that would lead to universal education, nor the total abdication of slavery. That, evidently, had been too expensive for Palpatine’s ideals, which could hold a technological terror as large as a star system as a key point of his policy, but could not guarantee the right of the poorest citizen of the Empire to determine his or her own life. The idea, Vader knew, was that the apprentice would learn: learn carefulness, learn priorities, learn the day-to-day mastery of the force that a true Sith could invoke.
But Vader, who had always been an abysmal apprentice, could see only that Palpatine’s ideas would not work, and it angered him that his ideas were devalued merely him for being lesser in status. It did not take being born a slave to find such blatant dismissal frustrating.
And so had made his own methods of getting petty revenge: the Emperor's will spoiled, sabotaged; sometimes, even, subverted. He had never gone so far as to wage an open rebellion against his master until the girl had come to him, but he had known he had had the option of it, once.
Not so, now. He cannot bear to deny her anything, not knowing she is his and hers alike; her blood, his blood. Her tears, his tears. He has torn the galaxy asunder for Palpatine, but he will stitch it together for Leia. His Leia. He had known from the moment she took her Senate seat; incorruptible, all eyes on her as she led an unpopular issue (the rights of the remaining clone troopers, he remembers) and turning the tide of the galaxy to her side. Palpatine had wanted to end her and the entire Senate for daring to succeed where he had failed. Vader had ended Palpatine for her. She, and she alone, had convinced him he was capable of it.
He thinks of it still, sometimes; the fire, the fight, the pleasure of a red blade slicing through the Emperor's embittered heart. He thinks of it with a smile as he waits for an audience with her, head bent down to the low ground, prostrating his loyalty before her even though his limbs ache and his back sends bolts of pain down his sides. Alderaan has its traditions, and now that it is her seat of power, he will obey them. For her.
She bids him rise up with a soft word in her native tongue; Alderaani is close to Naboo, and he understands even if he doesn’t speak it, doesn’t want to learn to speak it: the memories of another life, sometimes, bubble too close to the surface. Especially when he notices she has her hair and his nose. Bail Organa does not think he knows. He knows.
“Empress,” he says, then; with Palpatine, my master was always a harsh refrain but my empress is a soft benediction, a baited breath. He looks up. She is beautiful, his child. He cannot see her properly, not with the horrific helmet that hides a far more hideous face, but still, he notices her beauty; the white robe, heavily embroidered with the wrong crest; Organa’s crest. Despite that, her dress reminds him of her, as do the long plaits of brown hair that wrap around her head. She wears no crown. He doubts she would either.
“Is something on your mind, my lord?” His empress says; she stands and the entire court parts like the sea for her. She moves languidly with purpose as her mind seeks out his, answering her own question. Her face betrays nothing as she reads through him. He hides almost nothing, throws up no resistance.
From her, he has no secrets but one.
She places one tiny hand on his shoulder; they make an odd pair. Her hands, so small, so perfectly long and thin. She’s tiny, his girl, like her mother. It is hard to believe, at first glance, that she is his — she holds none of his height, his thick build; her hair, too, is her mother’s soft brown, along with her eyes, though Leia’s are forged of harder steel than Padmé’s soft glances. She is quicker to anger than her mother, slower to forgive.
That is his legacy, along with her strength in the Force.
“You seem ill at ease,” she says; he can tell from the slightly uncomfortable tone of voice that she is worried. “I can feel the fires raging within you.”
He wonders if she can see how he thinks of her; the fondness that flows from him like the most potent of Sith poisons. He loves her. He has to.
He indicates without words that he wishes to talk to her alone; she picks up on it flawlessly. There are so many reasons he has elevated her to the position her mother once held for him in his ideal Empire (and, in desperate moments, perhaps other thoughts, too: thick and dark and biting thoughts that take his breath away in mixtures of guilt and exaltation). Leia is incorruptible, a flawless politician; her mother (her true mother, not the cuckoo-wife whos death Leia still, visibly, mourns) would be proud. She snaps her fingers.
“Leave us,” she says.
The court leaves. Only Bail Organa, King Regent, remains for a shadow-second too long. He suspects Vader knows; Vader knows he suspects — the two men have never agreed on anything but neither is stupid. Vader’s insistence on Leia taking up the crown of the Empire has made unlikely allies of them both.
“Why Leia?” He had asked Vader then, and he’d been as annoyed with the question then as he is with Organa’s mother-henning to his stolen child now: Leia is resplendent – cruel to her enemies, divine to her friends. The Rebellion that Palpatine could never quash laid down its arms for her. The Empire falls at her feet. And still, the one who should see her destiny most plainly (and should never have seen it; she was never meant for him) — never can. Vader waits to speak until Organa leaves, as a point of principal and petty revenge, more than anything else.
Finally, satisfied, he turns back to her. He is no fool to politics, knows he should make his request more intimidating if he wishes his will be done. It is important for the dog to show that it can bite the master, and therefore make it all the more worth feeding him a bone, now and again. He has declined becoming emperor because has never preferred to be the one making the decisions. Padmé’s death, Leia’s abduction: all is proof that he is never meant to lead. But he knows how to make himself appreciated.
But, for Leia, he pulls out no dark threats. He reaches out with one large, leather-bound hand toward her and she grabs his palm instantly, without fear. A shiver of excitement worms its way through his heart, and the quick glance of her eyes at him tells him that she has seen through him, has felt it for herself, even if she does not understand. He should not be so open about such things.
But he cannot help it. He is so very proud.
“What disturbs you, my lord?” She says, still looking up at him.
“Is it true?” He asks. He doesn’t bother to specify what, exactly.
“That I’m cutting down on the number of my guards? Yes.” She moves ahead of him, breaks eye contact; she’s a bit nervous, his Empress, of disappointing him. She is a wise woman but in many ways, still a young ruler.
“You should not have listened to Organa,” he says, rolling his eyes. He folds his arms. “How will you keep your new colonies in line, Princess? The Hutts — “
“Have been defeated. Decisively, I should think.” She winks at him; they both know he is an unstoppable terror on the battlefield. Once Bail Organa finally relinquishes control over his cuckooed child, Vader will make her as unkillable, as unstoppable as he is. Already, he has taken steps to guide her to her first steps in the dark side; someday, he will finish the job, make her his final apprentice.
Someday, she will kill him. As all Sith do. A part of him even looks forward to it.
“For now,” he says, waving a hand; her eyes spark with curiosity as he mentally picks up one of the metal balls she keeps in her throne room, plying it to drift around the room; it is best if he can force himself to keep calm. Her attention remains fixed on it, and her smile calms him. Her presence, as her presence once was, is comforting. The ball is ostensibly for decoration, but, in truth, a practice toy for any force sensitive to train with. And, if needed, a weapon to vanquish her enemies. Born too young to fear him for what he did to the Jedi, the ball flies into her hands. He is careful not to teach her anything that might rise beyond parlor tricks; not yet. He is fairly sure Organa is still in contact with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Vader has learned not to underestimate his old master. He can take any amount of pain — Padmé’s death proved that — but he cannot take losing his daughter for the second time. He is sure that that would be Kenobi’s first move against him. He does not fear death but he does, still, fear Obi-Wan.
She flips the ball smoothly, making it twirl circles around them that prove she has been practicing while he has been off-world, fighting her wars. “You think their assassins will come for me?” He watches, proud, as she sends the metal into a dozen pieces, and then reassembles them effortlessly. She has his mechanical knack, perhaps. He hopes so; it will make building her first lightsaber easier.
“I have lived through enough war to know the price of freedom,” Vader says, not directly disagreeing but still trying to make his case, though he knows he will lose, in the end. Organa has his pacifistic claws too deep. “You must remain, vigilant, Empress. You are not all-powerful...yet.”
It’s a weak rebuttal, but he cannot deny her anything.
“You worry too much,” Leia smiles, lighting up the room with her happiness. She leans into the space between them, putting the ball back in his hands. Her tiny hands lay on his for longer than is, strictly, necessary, and he fights, hard, against the roaring dragon in his blood that wants to breathe fire into her. She is not her, but the ghost of Padmé’s still lies within her chest. “Palpatine is dead, and the Hutts soon will be. They’ve taken to calling me the Huttslayer in the holo-news, you know.”
“I am aware.” He is aware, has watched many of those clips, paused them, stared at them with pride and something else aside. In his chambers, free of the mask, he can study her beautiful face all the more, watch her features light up with his smile as the title of a warrior beams down upon her. “But the Hutts have a long reach, my Empress. Longer than you might expect.”
It will never be a Hutt they send against her, he knows. It’ll be someone like him, like who he was, once: the slave child, desperate. They will tell them freedom lies at the end of a blade and the child will never once stop fighting for their freedom. The galaxy is darker than Leia knows, and he longs simultaneously to both expose her to it and keep her from it.
“My dreaded guardian will protect me,” she says, dismissing his words. She squeezes his hands. He cannot feel it, not really, but enjoys the thought of it none the less. He likes that she thinks of him as a protector; it is rare, for him, to play hero. “You’d never let anyone harm me. Even father says so.”
Odd; he hadn’t thought Organa would have the balls to whisper about him behind his back, let alone compliment him. He is so usually focused far too much on pretending things that exist, do not. “I was unaware your father had many thoughts regarding your naval commander, Empress.”
“Generally that’s true but…” Empress Leia Organa, Heir Resplendent of Alderaan, smiles up at him, bits of pink on her cheeks. It reminds him of how young she truly is, just barely into her twenties. “Well, surely you’ve heard of my father trying to force me into a marriage alliance. He says that it's needed now, someone to help me hold up the responsibilities of the crown.”
If he had the ability to choke, he would do so. He is quite, quite sure Organa never would pull his name out for such a measure, and would thoroughly dissuade his daughter from doing so.
“He does not approve of you,” Leia says in a low drawl, picking up on his thoughts. “But why should my father keep me from what I want? I have the interests of the Empire to keep in mind, and it seems to me a military husband would be better than another senator. They are all such bores, you know,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I think they like to talk about themselves more than they want to talk to me.”
“It is… to be expected, with politicians,” he says because he does not know what else to say. He cannot accept what she so subtly proposes and will not; there are boundaries even he cannot cross, no matter how much he longs to touch her again and knowing full well this is the closest he can get to holding her ghost.
“Have you ever thought of...?” She asks; she looks younger than she is now, floundering badly with a bright red face. This, it appears, his legacy as well; Skywalkers are all wretched at romance. He avoids the question, puts space between them, because he cannot lie to her. A part of him has thought these things; has been ashamed of such things. A part of him, the one he can never admit still exists, rattles his cages and rages for Vader to tell the truth.
But he fears that. If they know he knows, Organa and Kenobi will vanish her into the night, as they had her mother. He fears more if she proposes to him outright. He cannot deny her. He would take her, he knows. Though it would ruin them both.
"I have been focused on the plans for Tatooine, your highness." He says, skirting the brief flirtation she has given him to by going back to their work. She rolls her eyes, like the youth that she is, but turns to smile at him; just the barest hints of yellow breaks through her brown irises, like dawn rising from the night. She likes to expand Palpatine's already sizable claim; he is glad to distract her with it. "Have you thought upon it since our last meeting?"
“Yes. We should take it, it would hurt the Hutts even more to lose Jabba’s grounds; you know how vital he is to keeping what's left of their stagnant pond filled with blood money. We certainly already have the forces to overwhelm them — if we need them at all. The slaves will gladly help overthrow their masters there; we should not need to send many troopers to get the job done. And…” She looks up at him and frowns, suddenly thoughtful. “I have seen something, meditating upon it. A boy is there. He’s blond, my age. He’s important…but I don’t know why yet. Sometimes an old man is with him. He scares me. His eyes know too much.”
She waves her hand and he sees her vision; the boy, with big eyes and a smile that reminds him of someone else, and the old man, unmistakably Kenobi, after all this time. Kenobi’s smile is grim, forced; bitter. He replays it, watching Kenobi again, and again. He is protecting the boy, but what is the boy to him? A last apprentice? He sees Obi-Wan, sees the grim set of his eyes, and fears. But perhaps it is time to fear no longer.
It is, he supposes, time they find out what Obi-Wan has left hiding up his sleeves.
“I agree,” he says, for, in the end, he cannot deny her anything. Even if it feels something like touching destiny here; a quiver of excitement he has not felt since rediscovering his lost child. “You should come with us, I think, Princess. Perhaps it is time for you to earn your Huttslayer title.”
If he keeps her by his side, Kenobi cannot hide her, cannot claim her. Once Kenobi is dead, after all, he can elevate her training — and, perhaps, finally reveal the secret he has kept waiting, after all these years.
She smiles at him, her eyes almost feral, yellow-brown; it reminds him of nothing more than his childhood, watching Tatoo 2 rising in the east.
Vader thinks of coming home, daughter in arm, and smiles. He had always said he would free the slaves. He will end slavery, end Kenobi, and bring Tatooine back under the Republic’s thumb; a glorious day, if they succeed.
“I will enter the decree,” she says, but neither of them moves right away, both watching the Alderaanian sun as it sets beyond the horizon. It is the dawning of a new day, he knows; he has so much to prepare, so much to teach her. He will have to start preparing, right away, but he is in no hurry to withdraw from her company.
If his hand lingers on hers just a moment too long before he bows and leaves the room, neither addresses it.